We Lean Lest We Fall

Today we both fell.

Eventually balance moves
out of us into the world;
it’s the pull of rabbits
grazing on the lawn
as we talk, the slow talk
of where and when,
determining what
and who we will become
as we age.

We admire the new plants
and the rings of mulch you made,
we praise the rabbits eating

the weeds’ sweet yellow flowers.

Behind our words the days
serve each other as mother,
father, cook, builder, and fixer;
these float like the clouds
beyond the trees.

It is a simple life, now,
children grown, our living made
and saved, our years our own,
husband and wife,

but in our daily stride, the one
that rises with the sun,
the chosen pride,
we lean on our other selves,
lest we fall
into a consuming fire
and lose it all.
~Richard Maxson, “Otherwise” from  Searching for Arkansas

Our days are slower now, less rush, more reading and writing, walking and sitting, taking it all in and wondering what comes next.

I slowly adapt to not hurrying to work every other day, looking to you to see how I should parcel out each moment. Should I stay busy cleaning, sorting, giving away, simplifying our possessions so our children someday won’t have to? Or should I find some other kind of service off the farm to feel worthy of each new day, each new breath?

It is an unfamiliar phase, this facing a day with no agenda and no appointments. What comes next is uncertain, as it always has been but I didn’t pay attention before.

So I lean lest I fall. I breathe lest I forget how.

Melancholia

A fine rain was falling,
and the landscape was that of autumn. 
The sky was hung with various shades of gray,
and mists hovered about the distant mountains –
a melancholy nature. 
The leaves were falling on all sides
like the last illusions of youth
under the tears of irremediable grief. 
Every landscape is, as it were,
a state of the soul,
and whoever penetrates into both is astonished
to find how much likeness there is in each detail.”
~Henri Frederic Amiel from The Amiel Journal

What is melancholy
at first glance
glistens bejeweled
when studied up close.

It isn’t all sadness~
there is solace in knowing:
the landscape and my soul
share an inner world of tears.



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Catastrophic Thinking

(story from the Barnstorming archives)

Chores at our farm are rarely routine since our batch of four male kittens were born 6 months ago. They were delivered unceremoniously in the corner of one of the horse stalls by their young mother whose spontaneous adoption we accepted a mere four weeks before, not realizing we were accepting five kitties, not just one.

They were born under a Haflinger’s nose, and amazingly survived the ordeal and managed to stay safe until the next day when we came in to clean and discovered them nicely warmed near a nice fresh pile of poop. What a birthing spot this mama had chosen. Thankfully Haflingers are tolerant about sharing their space as long as you don’t ask for a share of their food too…

We moved them and mama to a safer spot in the barn, away from big Haflinger feet, and they thrived, getting more adventuresome by the week, until they are now in full adolescent glory, mock fighting with each other, scrambling up and down the hay bales, using the shavings as their personal litter box, doing rodent patrol, and most of all, strolling along the shelves that line the stalls, breathing in the Haflinger smell, and rubbing their fur up against Haflinger noses through the wire. They are best of friends with these ponies in the light of day, as after all they were born right in a Haflinger bed.

But at night it’s another story. Each evening as I come out to do chores after returning home from work, it is pitch dark and the Haflingers, out in their winter paddocks, must walk with me one by one back to their box stalls for the night. Only this is now far more of an adventure thanks to four cats who glory in stealth attacks in the dark, like mountain lions in the shadows, waiting for their prey to pass by.

These four rascals are two tabbies, one black and one gray, all four perfectly suited to be camouflaged in the northwest dim misty fall evenings along a barely lit pathway between paddocks and barn. They flatten themselves tight on the ground, just inches from where our feet will pass, and suddenly, they spring into the air as we approach, just looking for a reaction from either the horse or myself. It never fails to unnerve me, as I’m always anticipating and fearing the horse’s response to a surprise cat attack. Interestingly, the Haflingers, used to kitten antics all night long in the barn, are completely bored by the whole show, but when the tension from me as I tighten on the lead rope comes through to them, their head goes up and they sense there must be something to fear. Then the dancing on the lead rope begins, only because I’m the one with the fear transmitted like an electric current to the Haflinger. We do this four times along the path to the barn as four kittens lay in wait, one after another, just to torment me. By the end of bringing in eight horses, I’m done in by my own case of nerves.

You’d think I’d learn to stop fearing, and start laughing at these pranksters. They are hilarious in their hiding places, their attempts to “guard” the barn door from intruders, their occasional miscalculations that land them right in front of a hoof about to hit the ground. Why I haven’t had at least one squished kitten by now is beyond my comprehension. Yet they survive to torment me and delight me yet another night. I cuddle them after the horses are all put away, flopping them on their backs in my arms, and tickling their tummies and scolding them for their contribution to my increasingly gray hair.

I’m a slow learner. These are like so many of my little daily fears, which seem to hide, blended in to the surroundings of my daily life, ready to spring at me without warning, looking like much bigger scarier things than they really are. I’m a highly skilled catastrophizer in the best of circumstances, and if I have a kitten sized worry, it becomes a mountain lion sized melodrama in no time. Only because I allow it to become so.

Stepping back, taking a deep breath, if I learn to laugh at the small stuff, then it won’t become a “cat”astrophe, now will it? If I can grab those fears, turn them over on their back and tickle their tummies until they purr, then I’m the one enjoying a good time.

I’ll try that the next time I feel that old familiar sensation of “what if?” making my muscles tense and my step quicken. I just might tolerate that walk in the dark a little better, whether it is the scary plane flight, the worry over a loved one’s health, the state of the economy, where the next terrorist will strike, or the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.

I’ll know that behind that mountain lion is a soft loving purring fur ball, granting me relief from the mundane, for which I’m extremely grateful. Life is always an adventure, even if it is just a stroll down a barn lane in the dark wondering what might come at me next on the path.

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

Threshed to Death

If you go back to the etymology of the word “threshold,” it comes from “threshing,” which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.

There are huge thresholds in every life.

You know that, for instance, if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, fifty things to do and you get a phone call that somebody you love has suddenly died, it takes ten seconds to communicate that information.

But when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. Suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this.

So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative. And a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often how we cross is the key thing.

When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere.
~John O’Donohue from an “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett on “Becoming Wise”

I emerge from the mind’s
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.
I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on
this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light.
To look forward?
Ah, what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.

I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What
to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?
~R.S. Thomas “Threshold”

Yet three more “mass shootings of the week” making it 32 so far this year:
-garlic festival attendees, WalMart shoppers, entertainment venues –

so which of us will be next?

We are unwillingly forced to a threshold we must cross over. Yet we stand stubborn defending our second amendment rights, immobilized, frozen to tradition while dying on the spot, peering out in fear but never peering inward in self-examination.

What prevents us from stopping this insanity of violence from continuing?

The answer is not that more of us should bear arms so a shoot-out is possible no matter where we go. Mass shooters choose to die in their most public and heinous act of hatred and nihilism – being shot to death is no disincentive for them.

We sweep people into office from both parties who only voice platitudes in the face of this repetitive tragedy and offer no viable solutions. Yes, victims (including children!) and their families need our prayers, but they should never have become victims in the first place. We have failed them, again and again and again.

So how many more innocents need to perish? When is it our own turn to be gunned down while simply living out our daily routine? Instead of submitting to the necessary threshing- a crushing winnowing to blow away the chaff of our lives- we defend the status quo and somehow convince ourselves the next shooter will not come to our store, our church, our school or our neighborhood.

History will continue to repeat itself as we die every day, by our own hand or by others’. We must cross the threshold to sane policies together, arm in arm, united in the need to move forward beyond this mess we have made for ourselves.

We all need a good threshing, badly. We need to be worthy of our privileges. We need, in our desperation, to reach out our hands into an unknown space, searching for that reciprocating touch, hoping and praying Someone is there to grab hold and lead us across to a better day and a better way.


Braiding of Moments

To notice the braiding of moments—

This is how the world is built
in the depths we cannot see,
but, stopping for a moment,
we can feel it,
in the solitude of any night.

In the absence of light,
on the precipice of dreams we
can hear a jot of humming,
as the unseen parts of the world spin
and gather themselves within us,
inside the air that eases down
the leaves and sustains, as it moves
toward us, the distant calling of an owl.
~Richard Maxson “Dreams and After”

Last night we were awakened by a summer windstorm – from a muggy stillness where no air moves to sudden breezes flowing roughshod over our bed. Our wind chimes outside clanged a cacophony rather than gentle harmonic tones. The window shades became percussion instruments. Anything not fastened down went airborne.

This fortuitous storm pulled me from a bad dream of a recent stress-filled work day I didn’t manage well. As I woke startled to bed sheets blowing, I gulped at the fresh air as it passed by, allowing my dream to exhale right through the window, never to return.

Life’s intertwined moments, good, bad and indifferent, remain carefully braided together, bound and strengthened so the weaker strands are held steadfast by the enveloping twists and turns of those sturdier ones.

What was, is and will be are held together unbroken, bolstered by tougher stuff than we may think possible.

And we, swinging in the breezes, simply must hang on for dear life, if only by a slender thread.

A Gentle Occasion

when I turned two

Getting older:

The first surprise: I like it.
Whatever happens now, some things
that used to terrify have not:


I didn’t die young, for instance. Or lose
my only love. My three children
never had to run away from anyone.


Don’t tell me this gratitude is complacent.
We all approach the edge of the same blackness
which for me is silent.


Knowing as much sharpens
my delight in January freesia,
hot coffee, winter sunlight. So we say


as we lie close on some gentle occasion:
every day won from such
darkness is a celebration.
~ Elaine Feinstein, “Getting Older” from The Clinic, Memory

when I turned 6

It is a privilege to turn 65 today, celebrating the unofficial end of middle age and the beginning of senior citizen discounts and elder status. I’m pleased to make it this far relatively unscathed.

When I was an early grade school kid, I worried about everything: whatever could happen would happen – in my imagination. My parents would perish in an accident while I was at school. My dog would get lost and never come home. I would get sick with a dread disease that only afflicts one in a million children, but I would be that one.

The worries went on and on, often keeping me awake in the night and certainly ensuring that I had stomach aches every morning so my mother would keep me home from school where life felt safer. Our pediatrician, who saw me much more regularly than was actually necessary, would look at me over his glasses with a gentle penetrating gaze, put his hands on my shoulders as I squirmed about on the noisy paper on his exam table, and tell me for the umpteenth time I was 110% healthy so there was nothing I needed to worry about. I now try to instill this confidence in my own patients, thanks to that good man.

But I knew I needed to worry; somehow the worry was a talisman that kept the awful darkness of bad stuff away, things like nuclear bombs and polio outbreaks and earthquakes. That is a heavy load for a little kid to carry, making sure everything stays right with the universe. None of it ever happened in my sheltered little life so I must have been doing something right!

Thankfully, by the time I turned nine, I finally learned to coexist with the inherent risks of daily life, as I realized I, in fact, wasn’t in control of the universe. We lived okay through a 6.3 earthquake. We lived through a 114 mph windstorm that took out the power for a week. We lived through my grandpa dying. Later on I lived through some hard stuff that is painful to even recall so I’d rather not.

Growing older means realizing that bad stuff will happen, and it is usually survivable yet the reality is: life on earth itself isn’t survivable. I’ve seen and experienced plenty of traumatic things over 65 years, and have seen how heroic people can be in the worst possible situations. I’ve even been a bit heroic when I needed to be. But I’ve learned my confidence can’t be in myself or anyone else, and rests in Someone who really is in charge of the universe and who knows all that was, is and will be.

Oh, I still worry. It is hard to stop when it is deeply engrained in my DNA, having descended from a long line of worriers. My children are not grateful for that genetic gift to them. I’m sure my grandchildren won’t thank me either.

Yet, every day I snatch back from that darkness is reason for celebration, and today is no different.

Nearly 24,000 days under my belt of celebrating being here.
Hoping for more gentle occasions like this one.

It’s a great day to be alive.

Beautiful and Strange

There comes the strangest moment in your life,
when everything you thought before breaks free—
what you relied upon, as ground-rule and as rite
looks upside down from how it used to be.

Your heart’s in retrograde. You simply have no choice.
Things people told you turn out to be true.
You have to hold that body, hear that voice.
You’d have sworn no one knew you more than you.

How many people thought you’d never change?
But here you have. It’s beautiful. It’s strange.
~Kate Light from “There Comes the Strangest Moment” in
 Open Slowly

This disease of being “busy” (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.

Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you’re more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.

Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second. Tell me something about your heart, and awaken my heart. Help me remember that I too am a full and complete human being,…
~Omid Safi from The Disease of Being Busy

Now that I have officially committed to reduce to part-time clinic work nine months out of the year with summers off, I’m struggling with the strangeness of waking up with no job to go to. I’m no longer paid to be busy. It feels a bit like I’m vigorously treading water but with no destination in mind other than to stay afloat. Maybe that’s enough to just move and breathe but until I get my feet on this new uncertain ground, I won’t make much progress.

With no little trepidation, I have decided this is the time to start backing off from all-consuming clinic responsibilities, knowing I was becoming less effective due to diminishing passion and energy for the work. I’ve worked in some capacity for over fifty years, throughout school and graduate school. Not working feels, well… very strange. It makes me question who I really am and how not leaving home for a job changes me. I can barely remember who I was before I became a physician.

So here I am — changing — whether it is taking on new color or shape, exercising a different part of my brain, or simply praying I will make good use of this time to do something as worthwhile as what I have been doing.

And once again my days … will be … strangely beautiful.